Friday, May 18, 2007

Handle me with care

Today is the 27th anniversary of the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington State. I was 16 that spring, and not nearly old enough nor enlightened enough to recognize that the Earth is not a static body, but is rather a living thing, still growing and evolving (don't freak at that word), albeit sometimes so slowly our mortal eyes lose track of it.

Poor silly humans, we think we shape our own world. Yes, we definitely have the power, technology and desire to reshape and define it, but at the end of the day, we have a lot in common with your average tapeworm. We are essentially parasites on the planet, and it's an absolute wonder we haven't been eradicated long before now, whether by the equivalent of a geological vermifuge or some meteorological purge that strikes without warning.

Let me state for the record: I do believe that the Earth was created by an omnipotent and benevolent God, and that we were given dominion over all that is on it, but I don't think the intention was that we would squander and pollute it without regard to the consequences. We're supposed to love our planetary home and care for it as tenderly as God cares for us. The idea is that there will be something left for those who come after us, right?

Still, flying over the surface of the Earth gives me a sense of my own insignificance, and the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 is a prime example of why I feel that way. On my way to Alaska in 2005 I flew over the Cascades. I must admit I'm pretty much a coward about flying and, having already been in the air for about five hours, I had my nose stuck in a book, wishing desperately that I was back on the ground. My considerate seat-mate, a resident of the area, was kind enough to point out the spectacular view I was missing, right outside the jetliner window.

Scattered among the Cascade Range are green-black forests and still, shining-blue lakes and winding rivers. It's a breath-taking sight from the air. My tour guide pointed out the various mountains he and colleagues had climbed, and the approximate location of his home, from where his family would be departing shortly to meet him at Sea-Tac.

Then we saw the scar left on Mount St. Helens, when 57 lives were ended in one swiftly searing moment on a spring day in 1980. More than two decades later, the devastating impact of that blast are still evident, and will be for some time to come. Nature heals itself, but that healing is a gradual process. Long after I'm gone, there will be areas around the mountain that continue to refuse the mantle of reseeding and regrowth. Flowers will not bloom. Trees will not reach for the sky. Birds will not nest nor sing.

Eventually, though, it will all be reclaimed. We certainly won't be around to see it. Who knows, maybe no humans will. Geologic time, I think, can be easily compared with God's time. Maybe there's an argument that they're the same thing? They both move slowly; too slowly, often, for the human eye (and consciousness) to detect. Of course, at other times, both move swiftly and with great change or devastation. And they both continue on without -- and often in spite of -- human intervention.

I'm looking at a photo now of the plume of ash and smoke created by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. It's a stark reminder of the incredibly awesome power and potential contained within the Earth. I am humbled by the gift with which we have been entrusted.